Herb Clutter was a wealthy and successful farmer, having built up a sizeable business from modest beginnings, and a much respected pillar of the local community. He lived, with his reclusive wife Bonnie and his two popular teenage children Nancy and Kenyon, on the edge of the rural village of Holcomb, Kansas. During the course of a robbery on the night of November 15th 1959, the family were tied up and then murdered, each with a single shotgun blast to the head.
In New York, the renowned author and journalist Truman Capote read of the murders and travelled to Kansas accompanied by fellow author Harper Lee, in order to write about the case. He spent six years in all, talking to local residents, law enforcement officials, friends of the Clutter family and eventually the two men arrested and charged with the murder, Perry Smith and Richard Hickock. He followed the case through the painstaking investigation of an apparently motiveless crime with few clues and the subsequent trial and appeals process which ended on the gallows of Kansas State Prison in 1965.
The book was described by Capote as a non-fiction novel, and it does in fact live up to that description. The use of language is evocative and effective, and the sections of eye-witness accounts and documentary evidence do not seem out of place next to the descriptive passages. A lot of the book is derived from interviews with Perry Smith, and his journals and accounts of his wretched childhood.
It is possible to argue that Capote manipulated Smith in the interests of creating this book, and indeed that is the implied conclusion of the film 'Capote' that I watched recently. On balance, I would say that the book is a worthwhile exhamination of what is, after all, a tragic series of events. Hickock had heard of the Clutter residence from a cellmate in prison and became obsessed with the notion that a wealthy man must surely have a safe loaded with money hidden somewhere on the premises. His partnership with Smith, a fantasist with psychopathic tendancies, was a fatal combination. Neither of the men acting alone would have attempted such a crime.
Capote only refers to himself obliquely in the book on one or two occasions, and he does not attempt to draw any conclusions as to the reasons for the murders or the efficacy or morality of the capital punishment meted out to Smith and Hickock. He allows all of the participants to tell their own stories without judgement, and they are stories that are worth hearing.